Matrons of Awesome Part XV – Saint Helena

I've been in this room! Check out the Flavian Lady in the background. Best room in the Musei Capitolini.

The end of the Severan dynasty pretty much concludes the period of Roman history that I know anything about. However, I promised 50, which means one more to go… and though there are many interesting women of the later Roman Empire, if you’re only going to choose one, then it’s fairly obvious whom that one should be.

50. Helena

After the death of Alexander, Rome fell into a time of chaos brought about by very short imperial reigns, assassination, political plotting and civil strife. No emperor since the Severans had managed to found a stable dynasty, which meant that the role of women had been quite limited in the public political sphere.

Helena was the daughter of a tavern-keeper, which in social terms put her somewhere between freedwomen and prostitutes. As a teenager, she fell in love far above her station, with an ambitious young soldier called Constantius Chlorus, and she lived with him as a common law wife, though legal marriage was impossible because of the gulf in status between them both.

Twenty years later, the Emperor Diocletian, in the hopes of restoring stability to the troubled Roman Empire, divided the Empire into two halves, East and West, and gave the Western portion of the Empire to Maximianus Herculius. Each Emperor also named his heir and Caesar, and the man that Maximianus chose was Helena’s lover Constantius.

Constantius promptly dumped Helena for a woman more suitable to be the wife of a Caesar. He had six children with his new aristocratic wife, but Constantius also ensured that his son by Helena, Constantine, was educated in a suitably imperial manner. Just in case.

A little more than a decade after Constantius became a Caesar, Diocletian and Maximianus both abdicated, letting their Caesars step up to take power. Fairly soon after, on campaign in Britain with his son, Constantius died and young Constantine persuaded the troops to name him Emperor.

After securing his position by marrying Maximianus’ daughter Fausta, Constantine brought his mother to court. Helena, who had been considered too lowly to be an emperor’s wife, now shone in public as the emperor’s mother.

It is disputed as to whether it was Helena who fell in love with Christianity and influenced her son in that regard, or vice versa, but it is certainly true that she embraced the religion wholeheartedly, and supported Constantine in his campaign to make Rome a Christian Empire. In doing this, she further established herself as an integral member of the imperial household, and both she and her daughter-in-law Fausta were awarded the title Augusta.

In the midst of Constantine and Helena’s work to bring Christianity to the Empire, Constantine suddenly (the reason is not recorded in history, though there are some salacious rumours) ordered the execution of his wife Fausta and his son from a previous marriage, Crispus. Around the same time (possibly because of this violent episode), Helena began a tour of holy sites in Palestine, on a journey now considered to be the inspirational model for the classic Christian pilgrimage.

Helena’s pilgrimage was the stuff of legend – she performed acts of charity, founded churches, and collected holy relics by the bucketload. In doing so, she performed the dual purpose of publicising her son Constantine as a pious Christian, and publicising the Christian religion to those Romans who saw Helena as a figure of influence.

Good PR and multi-tasking. Both essential skills when holding an Empire together.

Stories are divided as to how Helena died; whether she had returned home or was still abroad doing her good works. But she certainly lived into her eighties, and was buried with high ceremony in Rome.

Helena’s lifetime saw many changes in Rome, only one of which was the religious landscape of the Empire. Her biography shows many parallels with the powerful imperial women of the early Empire, but also formed a model for the Mighty Byzantine Empresses who would follow her.

It is a point of mild shame to me that I know close to absolutely nothing about the Mighty Byzantine Empresses. Some day I shall rectify this, but that day is not today.

As so many imperial women from this series of posts have shown, while wives often had an integral role in the politics and public image of the emperors, it was usually as mothers that they exerted the greater influence. Sadly, none of them were ever allowed to do more than exert influence, and those who exerted “too much” were disapproved of, and had their reputations trashed for that hideous female crime: ambition.

Romans listened to their Mums, more than their wives. Romans were slightly less judgemental about Mums influencing Emperors, than wives. Possibly if *that* had been my thesis topic, it might not have taken me seven years to complete my PhD… but, you know. I got distracted. Mostly by becoming a Mum myself.

Thanks for hanging in here with me so long!

Hugs and kisses,
Dr Tansy
Mother of Two Future Rulers of the Universe


The Matrons of Awesome series was originally posted on Livejournal (LJ user: cassiphone) in March 2006 for Women’s History Month.

I’m reprinting the (reworked) series as part of my Rock The Romanpunk week in celebration of my short story collection, Love and Romanpunk, which was published by Twelfth Planet Press earlier this year and is now available globally as an e-book as well as a pretty imperial purple print edition. Thanks to Wizard’s Tower Bookstore you can also now purchase it for the Kindle.